Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

There are movies that I am just aching to review. Where I have jokes and observations and asides all ready and planned literally years in advance. Where I am just absolutely raring to go.

And then there’s movies like Kiki’s Delivery Service, a movie that almost feels engineered by some nefarious super villain to be absolutely impossible for me to review. Every tool in my critical toolbox is rendered useless by this thing. Can I rave about it? Honestly, no. It’s one of the slightest of the Studio Ghibli films, I didn’t grow up with it and I don’t have any particular affection for it.  Can I slam it? Hell no, it’s still Studio Ghibli after all and an absolute technical triumph. I can’t really do story analysis, because there’s not really much story. Is it even interestingly weird? It is quite possibly the most grounded and least weird piece of Japanese animation I’ve ever seen (low bar, I know, but still). Interesting or troubled production? Nope. Apparently it was just…like…a movie…that…got…made. No one went crazy during production. None of the animators were involved in a murder suicide pact. Nothing. Damn selfish, I call it.

So the movie begins with us meeting our protagonist Kiki. Kiki is a thirteen year old witch who has been raised by her witch mother and her muggle father. Both her parents are wonderful, caring people despite the fact that they gave their daughter not simply a stripper name, but the Platonic ideal of stripper names. In fact, if there was a single word to describe this movie and everybody in it, that word would be “nice”. Just about everyone in this thing is so fundamentally decent and pleasant that when the occasional asshole shows up, not even a villain, just a regular run of the mill jerk, you’re like…

Anyway, this story is set in an alternate Europe where neither world war went down. And also, there are witches. I…honestly don’t know what the divergence point could have been there. Maybe a witch saved Arch-Duke Ferdinand from being shot, thus callously murdering the hopes of and dreams of Serbian nationalism in the crib? Anyway, as this Europe is noticeably nicer and more chill than our one, it’s not considered a bad idea to send 13 year old girls out into the world to make a living for themselves, even if they have a name like “Kiki”. Look, I said it’s a nicer world, I didn’t say it was a “smarter” one.

So Kiki is packing because she’s made the decision to got out and try to find a town to be a witch in. But her familiar, a black cat named Jiji, is worried and wants to wait until a few months when she’s like fourteen. Which is not how it works, by the by. I was a sensible and stolid thirteen year old boy, but by 14 puberty had turned me into a hormone crazed creature that belonged in either madhouse or zoo.  I should probably also mention that I’m watching the 1997 Disney dub, not the original Japanese dub or the highly regarded 1990 Streamline/Tokuma. I understand that the Disney dub has its detractors who believe that it severely compromises the integrity of Miyazaki’s vision but those detractors are apparently unaware that this dub has PHIL HARTMAN AS A SASSY TALKING CAT so fuck the integrity of Miyazaki’s vision.

“Fair. That’s fair.”

God, Jiji is the best. I mean, the movie is perfectly fine and I can take it or leave it but Jiji is possibly the most adorable liddle puddycat ever committed to film.

“I am aware of the irony, thank you. Heart wants what it wants.”

So Kiki’s parents and neighbours wave her off as she flies unsteadily off into the night’s sky with Jiji. As they go looking for a town of their own to bring under their dark occult rule, they meet another witch who is kinda snooty and low key rude to Kiki. This, of course, makes her the most morally reprehensible character that we have thus far encountered, and I hope she falls off her broom and breaks her neck.

Kiki gets caught in a storm and takes shelter in a train which brings her to Kiroko, an absolutely gorgeous pastiche of mid-century Stockholm. For me, it’s really fascinating to see Europe as viewed through a Japanese perspective. It’s so pretty, even if it is obviously completely inaccurate.

Where are all the American tourists being hunted through the streets? And the piles of dead bodies laid waste by socialised healthcare?

Anyway, Kiki finds that this city is actually really aloof and unwelcoming to visitors (okay, that part’s accurate) and she almost gets arrested after her crappy flying almost causes a traffic accident. A local boy named Tombo distracts the cop and helps her escape and then follows after her, asking to see her broom. See, Tombo is a kid who wears glasses and is absolutely…obsessed with…flying…

“What?”

“Nothing, nothing.”

Tombo is fascinated by Kiki because she can fly but Kiki coldly tells him that it’s very rude to talk to a girl who you haven’t been introduced to and walks off. She tries to stay in a hotel but the concierge refuses to rent a room to an unaccompanied minor with no ID because of course he does and Kiki now finds herself homeless in the big mean city. Okay, the fairly small, absolutely beautiful city full of charming quirky characters but still, not a good day.

She passes a bakery and the baker, a heavily pregnant lady named Osono, runs out trying to catch one of her customers who left her baby’s soother behind. Well, actually, she calls it “a pacifier” which I’ve always is such a weird name for it. Like, The Pacifier doesn’t sound like something I’d give a baby. It sounds like a straight to video Van Damme vehicle from the late eighties.

Or an actual goddamn movie whose existence I had completely forgotten and will never remember again.

Kiki offers to fly after the customer and give her the soother and Osono is so grateful that she lets Kiki use her spare room. Running short of cash, Kiki decides to start the delivery service what was promised by the movie’s title. Her first customer is a lady who wants her to deliver a birthday gift to her nephew, a toy cat that looks absolutely identical to Jiji.

On the way, Jiji gets blown into a forest and drops the toy cat in the nest of some birds who do not fucking play and, of course, she has to substitute Jiji for the toy cat while she tries to get the real one back. So, you want to get an idea of this thing’s pacing? Look at that last paragraph. How long do you think all that took. Few scenes? Nah son, that one paragraph’s worth of plot took twenty minutes of screentime. Around a fifth of the movie. There are slow burners, and then there’s this movie which is like…a lump of unlit coal. Not a criticism. It’s just a movie that’s far more concerned with mood and atmosphere than with telling a story. Nothing wrong with that. Just a bit of a kick in the knickers if you’re a rodent who makes his crust recapping the plots of movies.

“It’s fine! It’s fine.”

So anyway, while Jiji gets adopted by the family dog as a chew toy, Kiki races back to the forest and finds the toy cat in the home of a girl named Ursula who’s living alone in a cabin in the forest because obviously she’s cooking meth an artist. She mends the toy for Kiki and asks her if she can draw her picture sometime. She flies back to the house, swaps out the toy for Jiji and they head home. And Kiki’s delivery service is off to a flying start. Because…yknow…she’s a witch and she ANYWAY it’s at this point that the thrilling narrative kicks into high gear. Kiki gets invited by Tombo to a meeting of the local aviation enthusiasts.

“We are not! I mean…they are not!”

But first Kiki has to deliver a pie from the sweetest old lady in the world to her ungrateful whore of a grand-daughter. When she arrives at the old lady’s house, the old lady apologies for bringing her out for nothing but says that she can’t cook the pie because her oven is busted. So Kiki instead helps the old lady to bake the pie from scratch in an old stove even though it’s cutting her time really, really tight. Kiki delivers the pie to the old lady’s grand-daughter through wind and rain only for her to sniffily remark that she doesn’t even like her grandmother’s pies and may she burn in a fire.

Shaken to her core by her encounter with history’s greatest monster, and sick from flying in the rain, Kiki goes home and collapses into bed. Unfortunately, her can-do-it-iveness has taken a severe beating and she’s lost her magic to the point that Jiji can’t speak anymore. Tombo visits her while she’s ill and they start hanging out more and talking about their dreams for the future.

“When I grow up, I’m going to spend my days hiding in large crowds and waiting for people to find me.”

She also visits Ursula in the forest who suggests that her loss of magic might be a form of writer’s block. If so, the solution is simple: cocaine!

“I dunno. Will it help me fly?”

“Will it?!”

So now we’re coming to the end of the movie and the movie actually deigns to have something as gauche as a climax. See, all through the movie Kiki’s been listening to radio newscasts about a blimp, The Spirit of Liberty, which is “the largest blimp ever seen in the state” which is definitely something a European newscaster would say. Anyway, blimps are beautiful, majestic creatures, but difficult to tame and this one breaks free and goes on a tear through Kiroko. Of course Tombo, the boy who wants to french kiss the sky itself, goes to watch and ends up getting tangled up in the blimp’s tendrils and pulled into the very sky he loves so much oh what cruel irony. Kiki sees all this going down and rescues Tombo when she discovers she can fly again thanks to the power of love or self-belief or I dunno, something..

“YOU WERE RIGHT MOUSE! YOU WERE RIGHT!!!”

***

If you’re ever feeling anxious or stressed or depressed, this is the movie for you. It’s nice and sweet and there is literally nothing in it that could conceivably upset you unless you’re a survivor of the Hindenberg who gets triggered by blimps. Just make sure you watch the original animation and not the inexplicable live action remake.

It’s like…picture the Japanese Disney channel remaking Sabrina the Teenage Witch and you’re halfway there.

Scoring

Animation: 16/20

Not showy, and certainly nothing close to Miyazaki’s most impressive work. But it’s a beautiful showcase of his European influences and feels like a lost ligne claire comic brought to life.

Leads: 15/20

Sweet kid.

Villain: N/A

What kind of movie do you think this is, sir?

Supporting Characters: 18/20

Yeah. That’s all for Jiji, wanna make something of it?

Music: 17/20

Miyazaki’s frequent collaborator, the legendary Joe Hisaishi, knocks this out of the park like he always does the big legend.

FINAL SCORE: 83%

NEXT UPDATE: 20 February 2020

NEXT TIME: It’s been over a year since I reviewed an MCU movie? How the hell did that happen?

17 comments

  1. That you managed to even review this and spend more than two paragraphs on the actual contents of the movie it a testament to your skills. I reviewed it once as part of a 50 movie Halloween watchlist (I grouped by theme and did 5 witch movies) and 60% of what I got (5 paragraphs total) is just talking about how it’s nothing like any of the other movies on my list and how the cop that hassles Kiki is totally a Lupin the 3rd cameo.

    Even commenting on a review of this movie is hard. It’s just such lovely fluff.

  2. Something hilarious baby-me thought the first time I saw Kiki’s Delivery Service (the Disney dub, since apparently Jiji doesn’t talk again after he stops in the Japanese dub): Clearly, Jiji can’t talk anymore because he spent a wild and crazy night with the female cat he’d noticed when they first arrived.

  3. You summed it up pretty well Mouse, this movie is sweet yet rather wholesome. I do like the idea that Kiki losing her magic is tied to her teenage depression. It’s something that people can connect to (even if you’ve never been a teenage girl), that moments of uncaring or apathetic attitudes can cut so deeply into our passions that we lose our interest in them and thus risk losing our sparks of passion. Our magic.
    Phil Hartman totally nailed it as Jiji, being so disinterested and snooty yet warm and caring. Few actors could pull that off. I don’t know if reincarnation is a thing but if it is he totally came back as a cat.

    Glad you mentioned Joe Hisaishi’s music, my favorite for this film is “A Town With An Ocean View” it’s so lovely and inviting. The kind of music you want to hear when you visit someplace new.

  4. This isn’t my favorite Ghibli movie but it is the easiest to watch. It’s just pleasant.

    Despite this being a hard movie to review in your usual style, I think you did a commendable job.

  5. Thanks for the review! So, watching this has put you in the mood for an action blockbuster? Make sure you compare and contrast Captain M with Kiki — I’m sure they share many common character traits. Sure of it. 😏

  6. Mouse, I’d like to make some pertinent comment about this film but have never actually seen the thing; therefore, may I therefore please change the subject and ask if you’d care to share the names of those movies you would LOVE to review but have never been asked to?

    Also, on a tangentially related note, may I please ask if you have access to Netflix?

    p.s. It’s still the same ED, I’ve just been obliged to change my email address (I lost access to the older one) which apparently changes the mon on my little avatar; I hope that you & the Clan Mouse have been doing well and prospering mightily?

  7. Kiki’s Delivery Service is the movie equivalent of snuggling up under a blanket on the couch with a warm cup of hot chocolate on a stormy winter’s night. I absolutely love it.

    Couple random things about the dub. First, I’m almost 100% positive that they never actually say Ursula’s name in the Disney dub. She’s given a name in the credits but they don’t say it in the movie itself. Second, which Disney dub did you actually watch? Because there’s two edits of the Disney dub, the original 1997 dub and a re-edited 2010 version. In the 2010 version, they removed some of the additions to make it hew closer to the original script. Probably the two most notable differences in the re-edit are the two songs that play during the credits, they’ve returned to the original Japanese songs (which RULE, the singer, Yumi Matsutoya, was apparently a HUGE star in Japan, I’ve had a hard time finding too much of her music but the theme song from The Wind Rises is another one of her songs) and the ending, where Jiji never regains the ability to speak. That ending is generally considered to be stronger as it implies that Kiki has matured past the point of needing to talk to Jiji for confidence (Miyazaki has even said that was the intended implication). Either way, any way to watch this film is wonderful.

  8. Great review of this film! I admire it a lot and probably would rave about it a bit more than you. Mainly because I feel films like Up on Poppy Hill are more of the “a movie made to make a movie” genre.

    What is an example of a film you’ve been planning to review years in advance?

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